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In, On, and Around the Fence: Farmington Marching Band Levels Up, Shows Up, Grows Up

by Lisa Gemperline

Level up: the show theme for the 2021 marching band season when the band moved up to the 6A classification. Were they ready? Were they capable of such a winning record when they were coming in as the “new kid” in town? How could they compete with so many seniors now graduated and so many rookies from 9th grade? The feelings were thick in the air with anticipation, angst, and nervous chatter. Being two-time, back-to-back 5A State Champions added to the pressure to perform on a new level.

Winning bands are the stuff of leveling up: leveling up the difficulty of the marching band show, leveling up in showmanship, leveling up by marching with innovative and creative design. What happens when the marching band staff is challenged by changing expectations and inconsistent judging expectations? The band leaders maintained a high level of sportsmanship while challenging their team with difficult and complicated show formations. What about when uniforms arrived and were 2 inches too short for the entire 130-strong team of students? The parent team leveled up, coming together to re-cut, sew ,and measure every single musician, creating over 100 custom fit uniforms. Leveling up for basic needs: feeding and caring for the band takes precision, creativity, and insight when meeting their dietary needs. The students’ response? Leveling up with A-plus manners, dozens of smiles and “thank yous” to the parent food team.

Winning bands are the stuff of showing up. As a band mom that wears many hats, I had a front-row seat into the season of drama, disappointment, resolve, and amazement. But amidst all the feelings, one thing stood out more than all the rest: one thing that robbed me of sleep, one thing that tugged at my heart more than any other---the stories. The individual stories of overcoming obstacles. The courage, commitment, and love that seeped from each one.

As I witnessed the season play out, I saw every competition---every story---through my photographic lens. The huddles are the first story, the beginning of each march, each new experience, each student showing up for each other and creating a circular story. Huddles united each member of the band, an arm-in-arm huddle of love and connection that each section displayed while jumping, bouncing and laughing together right before they took the field. Neither mandatory nor rehearsed, the huddles imbued energy into each performance and originated from an immense desire to come together for support and encouragement.

The second story stood behind the chain link fence. Her pink face was moist with sweat, eyes squinting into the westward shining sun. Her nose pressed tightly against the diagonal pattern of chain, imprinting diamond-shaped lines on her face. Why was she there? The entire band was told to go sit in the stands and wait for the awards. It was the first competition of the season. Excitement, anticipation, and energy filled the stands. She was alone: waiting, watching, hoping. I walked to her. Curious. Why was she not with the group? Did they know she was missing? Was she feeling sick? After discovering that she was happy to view the action from afar and was very happy to have a moment of respite after their first competitive performance—the fence was a respite—I understood. A true introvert, she was showing up for the team.

A third story showed up, eager yet nervous to enter onto the field to rehearse as he lifted his bucket hat with trumpet in hand, ready to flick up to his mouth for sound. I witnessed this image week after week and each time questions filled the space around my lens. Why was he waiting? Why wasn’t he on the field already? Why was he looking at his field leader so earnestly? I caught a free moment and asked his name. He told me he was an alternate. I became more curious. His story unfolded and I felt brightened by the patience of his story, a young musician waiting for his time.

Winning bands help kids grow up, pushing them to move, think, and engage with each other in ways that are ever-expanding outside kids’ typical comfort zones. As I watched the dedication, anxiety, and willingness of these two students to be alternates I was lifted by their desire to play world-class music, more so by their desire to belong. Not only did they belong to themselves by having the ability to stand alone and on the outside when life demands, but also they belonged to a group that was not intimately theirs. Band teaches each student the benefits of individual accountably, team building, work ethic, integrity, defeat and hardship and perseverance along with the joys of music, safety through belonging, and success. Band creates safety and belonging: you have a group. You have a place. They have your back. You can be beautifully authentic, different, unique and yourself.

When I asked the young woman by the fence if she was afraid to perform, she said “yes.” I asked her if she felt bad that she only went in for certain movements and she said, “No, because being an alternate offers me the ability to perform even though I do not have the skills or the experience that the older musicians have.” She was happy about that. When I asked the trumpet section leader if he knew that one of his ensemble was eating over in the corner, alone, at lunch he replied, “ Yes, and he likes taking a break by himself away from the band during lunch because the rehearsals are pretty intense and this is how he can get away by himself for a minute.” How brilliant: self-regulation is still possible for those who need and want to be on the outside, but are brought in any time that they are ready. I’m not sure if this dichotomy can be found in any other group in high school except for marching band: egos are put aside and the one is seen, heard, and valued for being different yet the same.

Winning bands level up, show up, and grow up: the Farmington High Marching band surmounted the pressure, beat the anticipation, and won, setting their best record yet in the few short years they have been a school. An incredibly distinct group in terms of musical ability, backgrounds, and walks of life, the unity they displayed amongst this vast diversity is astonishing. In every measurable category or scale from 1-100, this band had it all—and everything in between. My son is a senior. He chose band because of his love for playing his instrument and the other team members were where he felt safe and included. He left his sports team because they made fun of him for being in the band.

Looking back over the last few years, I say, “Now look who is laughing. You can stand behind the fence, wait on the sidelines, or sit in the corner. You can come from any place in life and still give 100 percent and be part of the band. Band is belonging: you have a group. You have a place. They have your back. You can be beautifully authentic, different, unique, and yourself. Being part of the band will bring change that will help these musicians level up, show up, and grow up for the rest of their lives.

Lisa Gemperline is a photographer and arts enthusiast in Farmington, Utah. Mother of five and Grammy Lou to two grandchildren, Lisa seeks opportunities to see things others can’t see, with the aid of her lens and camera. “When I’m behind a camera, my mind shifts from worry and fear to excitement, hope, and wonder. It’s like magic.”

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